Some think it’s unlikely voters will approve new taxes and fees that would go to transit.
But the campaign director of the pro-transit coalition GetOnBoard B.C. suggests that next year’s referendum could succeed.
According to Lee Haber, putting together a package of transit improvements that voters across Metro Vancouver will support is crucial.
“The important thing is that it’s regional, and that it’s clear that there’s something in it for everybody,” Haber told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
Haber stated that the discussion so far has focused too much on funding sources that nick people’s wallets. He said the emphasis should be on transit projects that are needed by residents across the Lower Mainland.
GetOnBoard B.C. is a broad alliance of residents, students, workers, businesses, and academics. Its members include former Vancouver councillor Peter Ladner, and the Surrey Board of Trade is one of its founding partners.
“Where referendums have been successful in the past—there’s several examples in the United States—the funding has been very clearly tied to specific transit improvements,” said Haber, who is working on his master’s degree at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning.
He cited as an example the 2008 referendum in Los Angeles County. Voters there supported a half-cent sales tax that took effect in July 2009.
According to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the measure will raise $40 billion over 30 years for traffic relief and transportation upgrades. The biggest chunk, at 35 percent, will go to new rail and bus rapid-transit projects. Twenty percent will be dedicated to bus operations.
“It’s clear that people, voters, will support additional funding for transit when it’s clearly demonstrated as to where it will go and how it will benefit them,” Haber said.
TransLink’s 2014 Base Plan and Outlook notes that population growth in Metro Vancouver overtook increases in transit service starting in 2009.
“Per capita service levels have begun to decline and will continue to do so without new funding,” reads a document released by the transportation agency on October 4.
TransLink also points out that two of its biggest revenue sources—transit fares and property taxes increases—are “limited by statute to a degree that is inadequate to keep pace with the combination of inflation and population growth”.
A third major revenue source—fuel tax—has been “dramatically affected by the general move toward fuel-efficient vehicles, more walking, cycling and transit use, and leakage of fuel purchases to areas outside the region”.
In August, transit advocates Paul Hillsdon and Nathan Pachal released “Leap Ahead: A Transit Plan for Metro Vancouver”, which indicated that a half-percent regional sales tax would yield $250 million per year.
According to the authors, the money would cover the region’s share of the capital and full operating costs for new transit projects. These include rapid rail to UBC along Vancouver’s Broadway corridor, two light-rail lines south of the Fraser River, seven new rapid-bus routes, the Burnaby Mountain gondola, and upgrades to the SkyTrain’s Expo Line. A half-percent regional sales tax would average out to 35 cents per day for each resident in the region, the paper states.
GetOnBoard B.C. is gearing up to be a “Yes” force in the referendum. The coalition hasn’t yet decided what ballot question it favours.
“The funding source we believe should be one that doesn’t punish a particular group,” Haber said. “It should be one that is, of course, sustainable. We’d like this funding to be one that grows with the economy.”
The Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation previously identified a regional sales tax as one of five funding options for transit. The four others were a vehicle registration levy, a regional carbon tax, property developers paying through a scheme called “land value capture”, and road tolls.
But according to council chair and District of North Vancouver mayor Richard Walton, it’s unlikely that the group will be advancing a ballot question in a referendum it didn’t ask for.
“Our position is this is not good policy,” Walton told the Straight in a phone interview. “That hasn’t changed.”
He said that the 2014 referendum on transit funding mandated by the provincial government will place municipal politicians in a difficult position because it’s an election year. Whether it’s transit, sewage treatment, or water, “anything which goes to the public and says we want an additional fee, additional tax,” Walton said, “it’s obviously going to be a difficult sell.”